Carolina’s Ron Rivera was at it again Thursday, taking one of those bold – and, frankly, unnecessary – gambles that earned him the nickname “Riverboat Ron.”
And he won.
Except it didn’t feel like a victory, and there’s a reason: Because it wasn’t.
In fact, the Panthers’ 52-21 defeat was one of the worst in Carolina history. It marked the most points Pittsburgh scored – ever – at home and tied for the most points the Panthers surrendered – ever – since joining the NFL in 1995.
So where did Rivera take a chance and win? Well, he didn’t. Not really. Survive is more like it.
He left his quarterback, Cam Newton, in when logic dictated he shouldn’t.
Then again, this is “Riverboat Ron,” and gambling is part of his DNA. Except this was one he shouldn’t have taken, not with the Steelers coasting at 52-14 five seconds into the fourth quarter. Newton had suffered a season-high five sacks and was pressured so often that he fumbled once and was hurried into an early interception that was returned for a touchdown.
“We got whupped,” he said afterward.
Yet Newton was in there to get whupped with five-and-a-half minutes left, driving the Panthers for a so-what touchdown that did nothing but make Christian McCaffrey’s fantasy owners happy. That’s the good news. The better news is that Cam Newton escaped relatively unscathed.
“Back then, at that point, we weren’t going to do certain things,” Rivera reasoned. “So we just wanted to give him a little bit of rhythm and get him out of the end.”
Pardon me but … huh?
The Panthers hadn’t been doing “certain things” all evening – like stop a furious Pittsburgh pass rush or have an answer … any answer … for Ben Roethlisberger. So why risk another hit to your quarterback for “a little bit of rhythm?” The Steelers removed Roethlisberger after one snap into the fourth quarter, and you don’t have to look far for an explanation.
Actually, there were a couple: 1) The game was essentially over, with the outcome decided long before, and 2) Steelers’ coach Mike Tomlin wasn’t interested in losing his quarterback to, say, another head shot like the one he absorbed in the second half from safety Eric Reid, a blow that resulted in Reid’s ejection.
I would argue that both could have … and should have … factored in Rivera’s decision to sit Newton.
Look, Newton is as valuable to Carolina as Drew Brees is to New Orleans. Without him the Panthers are toast. So why not protect him at all costs? OK, so the Panthers weren’t “going to do certain things.” Still, there was no guarantee “certain things” couldn’t happen … especially with a quarterback who likes to run as much as Newton … which means there was no reason to leave him in a game he couldn’t win.
Just as there was no reason for the Steelers to stay with Roethlisberger.
I remember covering a 1994 game in San Francisco when the 49ers were hopelessly behind Philadelphia, and coach George Seifert pulled quarterback Steve Young in the third quarter. Young wasn’t happy, and angry words were exchanged on the sidelines.
“I was looking for a fistfight,” Young said then.
But Seifert did what he had to do … because he couldn’t afford to have Young hurt. So he stuck with his decision, the 49ers got drilled, 40-8, and San Francisco went on to win a Super Bowl and Young the league’s Most Valuable Player.
OK, so that was 24 years ago. Let’s fast forward to 2014 when New England was embarrassed on national television in Kansas City, and Bill Belichick did what he almost never does … but what he had to do: Namely, remove Tom Brady. Reason: Simple. The game had been decided, and he needed his star quarterback to make it through the season.
So he stuck with his decision, too, and the Patriots went on to win a Super Bowl where Brady was the game MVP.
Look, Ron Rivera knows what he’s doing. He’s been to the playoffs four of the past five years, including Super Bowl 50, and you don’t get there by drawing up plays in the dirt. But he’s not going anywhere this season if something happens to a quarterback who was the league’s MVP three seasons ago.
It’s not just that the Panthers are in the toughest division out there; it’s that they struggle to win on the road, too. They’re 1-3 there, falling behind by 14 or more points in every game and winning only when they rallied in the fourth quarter to pull off a 21-17 stunner in Philadelphia.
And that’s significant because four of their remaining seven games are away from a home where they haven’t lost.
“You are going to have these types of games in the league,” Newton said, “and it’s going to be about how we rebound.”
He’s right, of course. Lopsided defeats like Thursday’s blowout happen. They happened to New England and San Francisco in seasons where they went on to win Super Bowls. But in both cases, coaches went out of their way to minimize the damage – benching starting quarterbacks before something went wrong there, too.
Ron Rivera didn’t, and he got lucky. Next time, he should reserve his gambling to plays and not to his players.